Sustainable Ski Resorts?

Brendle Group aims to make it happen through business models and spreadsheets

Jiminy Peak's Wind Turbine. PHOTO SONJA STARK

You might never have heard of the Brendle Group, or seen their sticker plastered on a lift tower at your local hill. But the Fort Collins-based engineering consulting firm has a lot to do with the future of the ski resort industry. They've worked with the NSAA and SIA, as well as resorts like Alta and Jackson Hole, to craft sustainability strategies.

You might not be surprised to hear that wind and solar power, hyper-efficient snowmaking, and more efficient buildings will be increasingly present at your favorite resort. But less obvious, and maybe more essential, are the long-term business models Brendle is working on that will help ski resorts transfer the concept of sustainability from one involving a few disparate energy and efficiency projects to a comprehensive and holistic way of doing business, and one that will seriously enhance the long-term prospects of the areas that adopt them.

Brendle president Judy Dorsey and her team, despite being trained engineers, see the greatest opportunities in spreadsheets, business plans, and perceptions. Their most successful project to date has been NSAA's Climate Challenge, where a group of resorts pooled money in order to fund development of greenhouse gas inventory tools and reduction targets. Without the collaboration among supposed competitors, it would have been cost-prohibitive. They're looking at how ski resorts qualify financial success and seeing how the lens of sustainability might change those numbers.

More recently, the attraction to new business models has led them to their recent partnership with the fledging Mountain Riders' Alliance organization. Dorsey thought their philosophies aligned, but Brendle only felt comfortable lending their engineering expertise when they saw that the demographic the MRA has imagined as their future customers—skiers and riders who want cheap tickets, low infrastructure, and a low-key vibe—existed.

Now, the pair are testing their combined hypothesis: that sustainability can save small and medium sized resorts, and that skiers will support those area. Dorsey doesn't buy into the idea that so many small hills are closing because of competition from "big-development, real estate-oriented guys," but wants to explore the idea that outdated business models, operations, and infrastructure may instead be what are holding them back.

Dorsey will be on the ground at MRA's Mt. Abram in February, followed by a session at the NSAA Eastern Winter Conference, February 5-6th, where she'll be presenting about alternative business models for ski area sustainability. She advises resort managers who believed they've already picked the low-hanging fruit of cost-effective sustainability to attend. Low-hanging fruit grows back, she says, and there are a host of innovative models available for growing the orchard.